The Broadway production of “Moulin Rouge! The Musical” was a spectacle that married different dance styles, from cancan and jazz to classic musical theater. Choreographer Sonya Tayeh’s biggest challenge: “How do I build the movement that moves the story and stays clear within that story?”
The show, based on Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 jukebox musical film, closed after eight months when the pandemic shut down Broadway, but it landed 14 Tony nominations, including a choreography nod for Tayeh — a great achievement considering it was her Broadway debut. The world of the musical was conceived along with Tony-nominated director Alex Timbers.
Tayeh says her innate process is about excess, especially when it comes to dance. That was a good fit for the numbers in “Moulin Rouge!,” in which bigger is better. Her quest in life, Tayeh jokes, is to help audiences understand how hard it is to make dance. “Every breath and step is talked about,” she says.
The show’s opening number, “Welcome to the Moulin Rouge,” is 13 minutes long and includes the covers and samples of at least eight songs and a variety of dance styles as it introduces some of the show’s key characters: Christian (Aaron Tveit) and the villainous Duke of Monroth (Tam Mutu), who wind up competing for the love of star dancer Satine (Karen Olivo), whom Moulin Rouge owner Harold Zidler (Danny Burstein) is trying to match with the Duke to save his failing club.
The number starts with “Lady Marmalade,” based on the movie’s version of the 1975 song originally recorded by Labelle, one of the more than 80 songs featured in the musical. It segues to a sample of Cab Calloway’s “hi-de-ho” chorus from “Minnie the Moocher,” which introduces Fatboy Slim’s “Because We Can” before landing on the signature dance number.
While Tayeh can’t guess at the hours of pre-production — before rehearsals even took place — that went into the opening, she refers to the process as a “map of ‘Moulin Rouge!’” that describes the emotional connections between characters and their steps and how those lead into the next movement. And she can tell you the number of kicks each cancan chorus dancer takes: 36.
The first character from the love triangle the audience sees in the opening number is the Duke, who enters to Outkast’s “So Fresh, So Clean,” and delivers his philosophy of life via the Berry Gordy hit “Money (That’s What I Want).” “When the Duke walks in, when he’s standing and how he’s presented, that was hours and hours of conversation,” says Tayeh. “All of that is movement and all of that is choreographed, and it’s a collaborative experience [with the actor].”
The action then shifts to the artists’ garret of bohemians Toulouse-Lautrec (Sahr Ngaujah) and Santiago (Ricky Rojas) as they see to Christian’s revolutionary education with the Talking Heads’ 1983 hit “Burning Down the House.” Another segue nods to David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” before finding its way back to “Lady Marmalade.”
Part of the process involved working with the actors and ensemble and “piling on a lot of movement,” Tayeh says. “From there, I watch without music and edit accordingly, making sure every breath, every inch of movement is driving the story.” She knows she has succeeded “when I’m feeling something — goose bumps on my neck or chills on my arms — but I’m also keeping [the actors] on track.”
The pre-production process helped director Alex Timbers bring “Moulin Rouge!” from the screen to the stage. “Some might say design and choreography are divorced from storytelling, but that is furthest from the truth,” he says. By first crafting the show’s world, the director and Tayeh could work with the actors to give each member of the ensemble their own life. “Every performer in the show has their own backstory,” Timbers explains.
Tayeh recalls a sweeping moment in the opening number of Act 2 when she witnesses the audience in rapt attention to the performance, set to music based on Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance.” It’s a moment that she says makes her cry. “It’s this beautiful synchronicity of all the elements of a musical — the dance, the lights, the narrative, the energy,” she says. “The incredible ensemble is fully electric as they sweep through the stage physically telling the story of Christian and Satine’s secret love affair. It makes me so proud to watch them.”